With the cricket season now in full swing, Black Caps legend Stephen Fleming is swapping the bat for the booth and joining Spark Sport's cricket commentary team.
'My parents separated when I was very young so growing up, it was pretty much just me and my mum and self-sufficiency was needed early on - but that also means I'm at ease in my own company. Although because mum came from a big family, she was one of 13, I was also swallowed up by cousins, uncles and aunties and the uncles provided plenty of strong male role models.
'Mum sacrificed a fair bit to make ends meet each week, taking me to tournaments and finding the money to pay for cricket gear and opportunities, but it also meant I learned first-hand about the value of money. Sometimes it was hard, and you focus on what you don't have, rather than what you do - but when everything has been worked for, it means a lot more, because even in those days, cricket wasn't cheap, and I will always be thankful to Mum for working so hard to give me opportunities.
'I wasn't hell-bent on cricket. I was never a prodigy, I just enjoyed playing with mates. My uncles encouraged me and I always had a chance to play for fun. I also had good coaches, but things didn't get serious till I was about 16. I did dream of playing, and I'd make up games in my head, but they weren't aspirational dreams, that's just what you do when you're a youngster and your heroes were people like Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe. When I had a bit of success and started getting into junior teams, I sensed I had some talent and I began to choose between going to parties with friends or turning up sharp for trials the next day. At about 17 I started to commit, and that's when things got serious.
'When you first start, it's all about the game, and you're playing purely for enjoyment. You're testing yourself, it's exciting and you look forward to the next stage and the next challenge. Then you start to get paid? How good is this? I'm now being paid to do something I love. Then the next stage, it's a job, and you begin to play to protect that job. And the last part is, you play as long as can because you're not sure what you'll do when you're no longer professional. That cycle from fun to job to what next - it's the scariest thing.
'Once you become vulnerable - perhaps you get dropped or your performances slip - that's when it's all about protecting your position. As a younger player you're bullet-proof, you're not thinking much about next week, let alone the next 10 years. I don't think players get tired of playing the game, but I do think they get tired of the nerves. That's certainly what happened for me, and there came a point when I knew I had to make a change.
'Towards the end, I remember driving to the Basin Reserve for a match, we were in a tricky situation, and I was so nervous of the outcome it was almost making me sick. It was then I decided I'd had enough - the pressure was overbearing, and my love for the game was close to dying, if not already dead - and it was such a relief. I still played another year but, being able to see the end of the tunnel, that was so therapeutic and I was able to regain some of my love for the game while I found a new sense of purpose.
'People don't often acknowledge luck but it plays a big part in people's careers. As I was finishing up, it was the same time the T20 format was being created and I was presented with an offer to play in India. This allowed me to prolong my career and, being just two months a year, it let me transition to life after cricket. The next bit of luck, I didn't play that well the first year, which meant I was offered an opportunity to coach an IPL team which was not something I'd really considered. Being offered the coaching role for the Chennai Super Kings - who I'm still with today – was a very fortunate turn of events, as it kept me involved but allowed me to enjoy family life, and to breathe something other than cricket.
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'I started playing in what you'd call semi-professional times when it was still quite seasonal. Now it's 12 months a year of total commitment with players travelling all over the world with different teams and franchises, as well as playing for their national sides. I was lucky to experience both eras, starting when there was a great balance and players had the freedom to explore things away from the game, like work and study. Today players are simply committed to cricket, so trying to find different layers for younger players is very important.
'When I first started, we were sponsored by DB Draught, and for test matches, I'd sometimes get throw-downs – that's how you get your eye in and prepare your batting technique for the day - from the rep before a game. Nowadays, there is no way the sponsor's rep would be allowed anywhere near the field, let alone giving throw-downs. So the game has moved from being very relaxed to very tightly controlled.
'Apart from our eldest daughter, our kids were never really subjected to the cricket circus and in terms of their sports, there's no expectation other than that we are supportive. They've cruised through the sporting landscape and, I say this with the greatest respect, they've had no real success. I did try to coach one cricket team when they were younger, but my basic knowledge is quite poor and there are much better people around to teach young people. Because my experience had been with highly tuned professional athletes at the top of their games, rather than what 7- and 8-year-olds need to know. I'm actually a very poor junior coach and a lot of what I could've imparted would've fallen on deaf ears.
'For the majority of my career, there was no social media, we just had newspapers, TV and radio, so it was a lot easier to control what you heard and read. But as captain, I needed to be well-informed, so I was open to reading criticism as I needed to know if anyone was being singled out for praise or criticism, so I could shape my answers during press conferences. On a personal front, it sometimes felt overwhelming, so you had to have thick skin. I remember playing in Auckland during a relatively poor patch, and I woke to an editorial in The New Zealand Herald calling for my head as captain. Five minutes later Paul Holmes was calling on the hotel phone. The last thing I wanted was a grilling from Paul Holmes but he said, "Anyone who is an enemy of the Herald is a friend of mine. I want you on my show, to have an opportunity to speak." He became a friend through the latter part of my career, but I look back at that moment, and how I was able to lift my game and accept that criticism. I was lucky to have an opportunity to grow from that point.
'First and foremost a captain is a manager, managing their peers and friends, and that can take many forms. For some it's being a strong disciplinarian, for others it's a feeling of mateship, but you have to connect with people to get the best out of them. You're also a gatherer of information and a counsellor who aims to get a group of people to take on certain roles to get the collective across the line. There's always a lot to learn and each day is different. Ideally, if possible, you don't turn leaders over too often. If a captain is cut off at the knees before they've been given a chance to put what they've learned into play, they won't realise their full potential.'